Saturday, 23 April 2016

Something Rich and Strange

Shakespeare died 400 years ago this week. His writings, and tendentious fantasies about his life, are being celebrated, especially in Stratford-Upon-Avon. ‘Celebrated’ here means in most cases ‘Made accessible’, and ‘Made accessible’ means in all cases trivialized.

Shakespeare was a Poet and Playwright. You do not alter so much as a punctuation mark in a poet’ work. Plays are to be performed: people who have been bored sick at school when made to read Shakespeare’s plays (I was one such) very often change their minds completely and enthusiastically once they have seen an actual and at least competent performance of one of his plays (The RSC often really screws up I’m afraid, especially in its Stratford productions. Amateur or school productions are often better).

But isn’t the language ‘difficult’? Well, yes, if you’re not used to it. And present mores seem to dictate that if something’s ‘difficult’ then it should be either abolished or simplified. God forbid that anyone should be asked to make the effort of reading, with someone who already knows and understands Shakespeare’s writings, say, one act of a play, or two or three of the sonnets. It might take as long as a couple of hours, but I guarantee — I’ve tried it with several not-very-well-educated young people — that the result would be an ability to understand at sight or hearing most of what Shakespeare wrote.

But you don’t think it’s worth the effort, do you?

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Google rips off writers

As a professional writer I want as many people as possible to read my stuff, but (except when I myself choose to make something freely available) I do expect to be asked, and even paid, when people want to copy it. Contrary to popular opinion, writers do not live entirely on fresh air.

I am therefore a member of the Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society, which supports writers by, among other things, collecting photocopying fees from libraries and universities and sending it on to the writers. Once a year I get a very welcome cheque for somewhere between £50 and £100.

Google, it seems, does not give a nun’s wimple for the rights of authors, though it is happy to make large sums of money out of their work. I thought the following item, from the ALCS’s newsletter, deserved a wider audience, and where better to put it than on a blog that is run by Google?


ALCS News Bulletin: April 2016

Google wins book scanning lawsuit


The US Supreme Court has ruled in favour of Google in a copyright infringement case filed by The Authors Guild that has spanned eleven years.

Millions of books were copied by Google without prior permission as part of a digitisation project that allows small extracts of the works to be viewed online. This led The Authors Guild in the US to file its lawsuit in 2005.

Following the rejection by the courts of a proposed settlement and years of subsequent litigation, in October 2015 the appeals court ruled that Google’s activity fell within the ‘Fair Use’ doctrine prescribed by US copyright law. Given that the case involved copying on a grand scale by a large, commercial organisation, The Authors Guild hoped that the US Supreme Court would review the ruling. However, in its final decision yesterday, the Supreme Court resolved not to review the case.

Google has denied any infringement throughout the case, claiming that its digitisation project fell under ‘fair use’ of protected works and that it served the public interest. The Authors’ Guild has always expressed its concern that Google did not seek prior permission of the authors concerned and has long-argued that the project undermined authors’ ability to make money from their works.

Responding in a statement to the US Supreme Court ruling, The Authors Guild called the decision a “colossal loss” stating that authors should be paid when their work is copied for commercial purposes. The Guild vowed to continue to monitor Google and its library partners to ensure that the fair use terms acknowledged by the decision are not abused.

Mary Rasenberger, Executive Director of The Authors Guild commented: “The price of this short-term public benefit may well be the future vitality of American culture… Authors are already among the most poorly paid workers in America; if tomorrow’s authors cannot make a living from their work, only the independently wealthy or the subsidized will be able to pursue a career in writing, and America’s intellectual and artistic soul will be impoverished.”

Owen Atkinson, Chief Executive of ALCS, commented on the ruling: “The digital environment provides unprecedented opportunities for accessing published content, creating new value for distributors and consumers. This is a success story written by authors and yet they are fading fast from the narrative. A fairer, more balanced approach is needed, one which recognises that content creators, such as authors, are the only truly irreplaceable link in the digital value chain.”


Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Logical Mr Carroll

Lewis Carroll, real name Charles Dodgson, has several direct or indirect claims to fame or, some would say, notoriety. He is best known now as the author of the ‘Alice’ books, written to entertain Alice Liddell, the little daughter of Henry George Liddell, who was the co-compiler of the still standard huge English dictionary of Ancient Greek (Henry, not Alice. (Duh)). Carroll was a very fine photographer, and many of his photographs are of little girls not wearing very much. In this post-Freudian witch-hunting age this excites great suspicion among the prurient, though I don’t think anyone at the time thought there was anything odd about it. Certainly Carroll himself would have been horrified and disgusted at the suggestion there might have been anything sexual (as of course there was) in his interest. We now know of course — and the really suspect people are those who strenuously deny it — that all human relations have a (perhaps unacknowledged) sexual element.

Anyway that’s more than enough about that. Carroll / Dodgson lectured at Oxford University in Mathematics and especially in logic. Some of his more elementary work in logic had much of the wit of his stories and verses; here is an example:


(a)  All babies are illogical.

(b)  Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile.

(c)  Illogical persons are despised.


As the subjects of this puzzle are people, we take the universe as the set of all people. We will rewrite each statement in the puzzle as an implication. First we define simpler statements,


B : it is a baby
L : it is logical
M : it can manage a crocodile
D : it is despised ,


where “it” in this context refers to a general person. Then the three statements can be rephrased as


(a)   B → ~L : If it is a baby then it is not logical.
(b)   M → ~D : If it can manage a crocodile then it is not despised.
(c)   ~L → D : If it is not logical then it is despised.


Our aim is to use transitive reasoning several times, stringing together a chain of implications using all the given statements. We have an arrow pointing from B to ~L, and likewise an arrow pointing from ~L to D; thus we are able to start with B and arrive at the conclusion D. However, the second statement is still not utilized. But since any implication is equivalent to its contrapositive, we may replace the second statement with its contrapositive D → ~M. Then we get the transitive reasoning chain

B → ~L → D → ~M .

We reason that if B is true, then ~L is true, hence D is true, and therefore ~M is true. Our ultimate conclusion is the statement

B → ~M : If it is a baby then it cannot manage a crocodile .

In ordinary language we would more likely rephrase this answer to the puzzle as

“No baby can manage a crocodile.”

Alternatively, we could write the answer as the contrapositive statement

M → ~B : If it can manage a crocodile then it is not a baby.

The translation into words then would be something like

“Anyone who can manage a crocodile is not a baby.”


This is perhaps his most famous photograph of Alice Liddell.


Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Jacqes Lacan

Today is Lacan's birthday, or would have been had he lived that long. He was born on April the 13th 1901.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The Panama Papers

That’s the catchily alliterative name that has been given to the huge collection of documents (not as a rule in fact in paper form) leaked from a law company in Panama; a company whose registered office is in fact in one of those ex British colonies that have long experience of devious financial dealings.

The papers reveal corruption, money-laundering, the usual trappings of grotesque greed, in ‘high places’. There have been cries of outrage, demonstrations in the streets, calls for enquiries, and resignations of ‘important’ people in all the countries affected.

All but one. In the U.K., which the documents show to be one of the most unscrupulous of all states, there have been nothing but shrugs of indifference. Why? Well, as with so many of the nastier aspects of Britain, it is the legacy of Thatcher and her toadies. Thatcher — and let us not forget that Britain is a fairly democratic country, so Thatcher was in power because the British people wanted her in power — had no real sense of right and wrong. If something was profitable, it was right; the notion that something could be profitable but wrong would have seemed to her a simple logical contradiction; the words ‘Right’ and ‘Profitable’ were virtually synonyms. The only values were monetary ones.

Lots of people have been saying ‘I’ve done nothing wrong’. No, of course they haven’t. “What do you mean, ‘Wrong’? I made a big profit!”

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

‘What Are Years?’

I mentioned the other day that among my current bedside books is/are the collected poems of Marianne Moore. I said that she’s supposed to be good, and so I’d persevere with reading one poem a day, but up to now her poems seem to be slight and whimsical; little sketches provoked perhaps by oddities found in her own bedside bookshelf.

But now, suddenly, with the poem ‘What Are Years?’, the title poem of a 1941 collection, she seems at last to be saying (or writing) something worth hearing (or reading). The poem is similar to, but better, less blatant than, Spender’s ‘I think continually of those who were truly great.’

I have not yet read further in this collection, but it’s been worth all the preceding stuff to come at last to this fine poem.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

The Viola

The other day I said some things that might be misinterpreted as derogatory towards that lovely instrument the viola. In many ways the Cinderella among stringed instruments, it has very few well-known solo works in its repertoire: the best known are Berlioz’s ‘Harold in Italy’ and the concerto by William Walton.

I don’t know if it was a guilty conscience that prompted me, but today I listened to Mozart’s ‘Sinfonia Concertante’ — actually a concerto for violin and viola, demanding a greater rapport between the two solo instruments than in an extended operatic duet — twice; once after breakfast and once after dinner. I’m afraid that as it was on my watch-sized MP3 player I no longer know whose recording it was, but it was a very good one.

The work shows the viola at its best. I said viola players are odd: perhaps they are, but perhaps their oddity consists in an unfashionable humility; a lack of the desire to be the big solo star; a willingness to co-operate with other players and not try to outshine them. Perhaps it’s viola players who really hold string quartets - the single malts of serious music -  together.

Or perhaps it’s just that the Sinfonia Concertante is one of Mozart’s greatest orchestral works. Anyway, anyone who ever felt or said anything ‘witty’ about the viola (the difference between it and the violin is that it takes slightly longer to burn) should listen — twice a day — to this work.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Cigarettes are Sublime

That’s the title of a book I read a year or two ago; a paean to cigarettes written by someone as a prelude to giving them up. Full of descriptions of the pleasures of smoking and vignettes of well-known literary and artistic smokers, it had of course the opposite effect on me. But following the recent trauma of a haemopneumothorax and the horrific hospital treatment needed, I’m making some effort to reduce my smoking. By dint of giving all my cigarettes to a couple of friends, with instructions to bring me one or two several times a day, I’ve got it down from 25 – 30 a day to 10 – 12. Much of the time it’s a matter of having a cigarette on the desk beside me, and saying to myself ‘No, I won’t smoke it yet; I’ll wait until the next cup of tea or shot of ouzo.’ This ability to defer a pleasure is generally regarded as a sign of maturity, of grown-upness. But I don’t actually rate grown-upness at all highly: I find the spontaneity, the lust for immediate gratification, of the very young far more attractive. Still, so far I’m not doing badly, but then I’m still feeling weak and fragile; I fear it may creep up again when I’m feeling better.

Now seems a good time to express my heartfelt thanks to the many people who have given me the benefit of their advice — usually in the form of a long highly didactic lecture that brooks no interruption — on exactly how to give up smoking. It really is most generous of these people to offer — no, to press upon me — their help, especially as in not one single case did I have to go to the trouble of actually asking for their valuable opinion.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Wagner Can Damage Your Health

It is usual on April the first to write spoof news reports and I suppose blog entries. But when the president of the United States visits the country where he keeps a special prison for torturing people and berates that country for its human rights record, then a few days later as the president of the only country that has ever actually used nuclear weapons waxes indignant because a small country on the other side of the world seems to want to have such weapons itself, it’s hard to know what is truth and what spoof.

Meanwhile in England a viola player is suing his orchestra because his hearing has been permanently damaged: it seems the conductor had seated the violas too close to the brass for a performance of something by Wagner.

Actually I do sympathise, even though the only times I have ever played in orchestras it has been in the brass section: sometimes on trumpet, sometimes on horn. Horn players can have almost the opposite problem to our violist: the horn has the reputation of being the most difficult of all instruments and certainly if you hear a cracked note from an orchestra it is likely to be the horns. For technical reasons, the same fingering can produce many different notes on the horn, and it’s only by very fine lip and breath control that one can select the right one. If the conductor puts the horns too close to the timpani, the shock-wave from a goodly drum-bash can be picked up by the bell of the horn and be sort of hydraulically concentrated as it travels through the several metres of brass tube to emerge in a puff that can blast the player’s lips right off the mouthpiece. (That is not, by the way, the reason horn players stuff their right hand up the bell.)

Still, viola players are always odd. Look at a photograph of any string quartet: I guarantee that the one who looks weirdest is the violist.